A closer look at the latest Western “human rights” campaign, this time targeting the Chinese fishing industry

America’s main rival remains a favorite target for largely unproven accusations of abuse

China is no stranger to unsubstantiated allegations of systemic abuses; we can talk about Xinjiang all day long and no one can produce a shred of evidence but everyone in the conversation has opinions and most will be certain of China’s guilt. Of course, those who actually know anything about it will be labeled “genocide deniers, CCP sympathizers” or worse. The ad hominem attacks come thick and fast but they are never accompanied by actual evidence that the information is wrong.

The time of the miserable serfs in Tibet and the people living in abject poverty in Xinjiang is long gone

The same goes for Tibet, it’s been 70 years now, and still no evidence that Tibetans are worse off, in fact, quite the opposite, as with Xinjiang, the population has grown, the GDP has grown, life expectancy has grown and when asked, Tibetan and Uyghurs have stated clearly, loudly and publicly, that they are not oppressed but they are, because the media says so!

Ill-informed describes people who don’t know something but in this case, the problem is not that they are ill-informed, it’s that they are misinformed. Media articles, everywhere describe China as an autocratic, dictatorial, and authoritarian regime but the reality for everyone who visits China, without an agenda, is the complete opposite.

Selective Western reporting, perhaps the most sophisticated form of disinformation

A recent article entitled The Outlaw Ocean Project written in collaboration with the New Yorker, approaches the view of China’s deep-sea fishing industry in the same way that so-called experts approach other aspects of China such as HK, Xinjiang, and Tibet. By highlighting negatives without discussing any aspects of the positives or the overall reality which is very different from a few isolated case studies.

The Outlaw Ocean Project is an extensive report. It runs to almost 10,000 words and, with photos and video inserts, covers 21 A4 pages. But it is, to all intents and purposes, nothing more than a hit job. It quotes the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF) an “independent” organization whose funders happen to include the US State Department and NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command. 

Look, who’s behind the China bashing again?

Interestingly, almost every report written negatively about China seems to be able to trace its funding back to the US State Department or NED, which was set up to publicly fund the kinds of things the CIA used to covertly fund. This one is no different, the “independent”, EJF, a British organisation, holds a definite anti-China bias. 

In an earlier EJF report about Chinese fishing industry issues, the entire report was, correctly, written about Chinese captains abusing the rights of mostly Indonesian crew, why I say “correctly” is because the boats were indeed Chinese, they were from the Island Province of Taiwan and, as with the Foxconn scandals where it was widely reported that Apple had huge problems with its suppliers in China, the Taiwanese ownership and management was either barely mentioned or completely omitted, depending on the media group presenting the facts, the same applies to the information we are now reviewing. 

Selective reporting is a huge problem when dealing with China. It’s quite true that China has crime, it’s clear that China has criminals, which country doesn’t! When mentioning that there are prisons in Xinjiang for instance, it’s often forgotten that there is a population the same size as Australia and among that population there are inevitably some bad apples. There was also a terrorist campaign in the region, once again, funded by NED. So, even those of us who are decried as genocide denialists will agree, yes, there are prisons in Xinjiang. Which city state or province in the world has no prisons we could ask, but it is this selective reporting that creates the issues with the article on Chinese fishing.

The article boasts that squid, the harvest this report is mostly focused on, was not widely eaten in the past but now Americans eat 100,000 tons per year. This is great as it is a useful source of nutrition, protein, minerals, and healthy fats but it fails to consider that it’s the Americans doing this which might be the root cause of the problems they are reporting. Americans are, after all, according to Businesswire, one of the world’s largest markets for the product.

Contradictions in the “reporting”

The vessel receiving the most attention in the article is the “Zhen Fa 7” it is indeed a Chinese vessel, you can find where it is at any given time on an international website. That part is not a secret, What is surprising is that the writer infers he was allowed on board. This is not certain because it’s not actually stated and, if the captain is abusing human rights, the last thing he wants is an international journalist snooping around. However, he was able to obtain photos from people on board after stating the crew didn’t have phones that work.

There seems to be some contradictions. The writer claims to have boarded some of the ships and talked to some of the crews, this surely suggests there nothing to hide, he further suggested that, when he was unable to board a ship, he was able to throw weighted bottles and get them returned with answers to questions and this is even supported by video imagery of him doing exactly that. 

But, the video shows the replies are in English – I am not aware that Chinese, fishing crews would be able to read, or respond in English and the Indonesians described in the beginning of the article would be VERY unlikely to communicate in English. Notwithstanding that little contradiction, the very action of throwing bottles with messages onto a ship which is allegedly steaming away in an effort to hide abuses seems bizarre, would the captain allow his, reportedly abused, crew to gather the bottles, write messages in a foreign language and then throw them back to the reporter, it really does seem quite fictitious. 

Speculation instead of facts

Another aspect of the report is its speculation. China has said there are 2700 vessels in its deepwater fleet and this matter is not part of the dispute but the “satellite imaging” they refer to suggests the number is closer to 6,500 and, while there may indeed be an additional 3,800 ships there, there is no evidence given or even suggested that they are Chinese vessel, merely that there appear to be more than the Chinese say they have. One thing I have learnt in my experiences with China is that when the Chinese government provides information, they provide it accurately, they won’t lie, if the Chinese government states there are 2,700 ships in its deep water fleet, you can be assured that is what there are. If they refuse to answer, then speculation is all you’ve got but speculation on a fact they’ve given you can be very easily verified. Which is why China won’t tell a journalist a lie.

Western “quality” journalism: the point of view of the accused is suppressed.

Not one mention is made in the article about the official Chinese stance on over-fishing. The reality and the legal position are other things the writers have omitted to tell us; China is not systematically draining the sea of fish, in fact, quite the opposite. The Chinese government are VERY conscious of the environmental issues and actually have fishing moratoriums for different regions and at different times. So, if there is over-fishing going on, it’s likely that these are not Chinese registered boats. They may have Chinese crews, they may indeed have Chinese captains and they may have Chinese names but they are not registered as Chinese boats because, if they are, and if they fish outside the moratorium limits, they will be prosecuted.

It’s hard to dispute that there might be fishing boats out there with criminal captains, but this is not a “Chinese systemic problem”. China has very strong laws related to workplace safety, it also has industrial regulations that prevent overwork and abuse. The problem here would be an Indonesian, picked up in Korea and placed on a Chinese ship would have little opportunity to make a complaint but if a complaint were received it would absolutely be dealt with. However, if there’s a Norwegian ship out there abusing a Philippine crew, off the coast of Argentina, what would, or even could, the Norwegian authorities do about this; the simple answer is not much, it probably happens in every fishing fleet in the world but does not indicate that Norway is a country which allows systemic abuse of its international workforce, why then should allegations about one Chinese captain out of a fleet of 2,700 ships be thought of as Chinese abuse? 

One of the allegations of abuse is that crew were denied hospital treatment but the article actually contradicts itself when it says one of the ships actually doubles as a floating hospital and has a doctor and surgery on board. It goes on to say that the predecessor ship had treated over 300 patients in 5 years.

As the article reaches the end pages, there is an incredible amount of speculation – the writer suggests that China coerced the Ecuadorean authorities to eject their ship from their waters but has no evidence other than a feeling China might have. The idea that a Chinese official could contact anyone in authority in Ecuador to ask for the removal of an inconvenient NGO ship from their waters because it’s interfering in over-fishing is pretty far-fetched indeed. 

If we were to look for further evidence that this article is influenced by State actors it’s near the end where the article jumps from over-fishing and abuses of sailors into the mainland of China where apparently Uyghurs are being forced to process seafood in some kinds of labour camps. What people writing these silly allegations fail to realise is that greater minds have already debunked them, the COWESTPRO Papers for example. They also omit the fact that the region of Xinjiang as well as the places where these Uyghurs are apparently forced into work are all open, accessible and free to visit by any journalist, tourist or businessman with the correct visa; they’re just too lazy, or perhaps it’s too inconvenient for them to bother to get a visa and check for themselves.

There’s more speculation that the ships have some military role to play but there’s absolutely no evidence other than the opinion of an “expert” Ian Ralby, who lectures NATO organisations for a living and suggests that while a fleet may look like a fishing fleet “it’s also serving military purposes” without offering any evidence of what that military purpose is, nor why he believes this to be the case. This may be because it’s what the US already does and the UK has been doing since WW2. There is no evidence China does this but since the “allied forces” are already doing so, there’s a strong assumption, without any basis that China must also do it.

Assertions, even if they are unfounded, always fulfill their purpose

In keeping with the “throw enough mud and see what sticks”, strategy, the report mentions the often-debunked Sri Lankan port “Debt trap” story for good measure. Once again, with no evidence whatsoever, the article suggests that China’s investment in ports around the world allows it to shirk taxes and avoid meddling inspectors. This seems to be another huge contradiction, if the ships are government-controlled, if the ports are government-controlled, and because everyone knows the tax systems are government-controlled, how could using them help the skippers, crews or owners avoid any tax liabilities? It really does seem that the authors don’t want us to think too hard about their allegations.

Striking: no negative reports on non-Chinese fishing fleets

Fishing is, by its very nature a dangerous job. It is, according to the Fishing Daily, the most dangerous job in the world. Reports on injuries sustained in China’s fleet are not the “opaque” world of a sinister Chinese operation they are the normal day-to-day operations of a deep-sea fleet of vessels which has both good and bad. Crews get paid more than they would get paid at home but work is hard and long, every seafaring nation has its fisheries and every fishery will have its good and its bad. China is no different, the only difference between China’s fishing fleet and those of other Asian nations such as Japan, the Philippines, Korea, or even other regions such as Taiwan is that they are friends of the USA, and therefore no one will fund negative stories about them.